September 13, 2019

True Love Ways

A few years ago, this Modern Love column by Mandy Len Catron offered a step-by-step protocol for intimacy: It was titled, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” The process was based on the work of psychologist Arthur Aron, who in this paper provides procedures for “the experimental generation of interpersonal closeness.” Aron’s aim was not to help people achieve intimacy; rather it was to “make being in a relationship accessible to laboratory study and experimental manipulation.” Apparently it is hard to isolate the “independent variables” in those relationships that manage to begin without lab technicians’ intervention and supervision. But by taking two strangers and speeding them through a standardized falling-in-love algorithm, psychologists can supply themselves with intimacy in a petri dish, “opening up previously impractical research horizons.” He mentions lab-induced “self-esteem-lowering methods” as inspiration. If we can make people feel artificially terrible about themselves in a lab, why can’t we make them artificially intimate with a control-group subject? (The researchers behind the Facebook mood-manipulation study apparently had no such scruples, or perhaps they regarded all the relationships sustained by Facebook as essentially laboratory-created.)

“Are we producing real closeness?” Aron asks in the general discussion section. “Yes and no … It is useful as a means of creating a similar although not completely identical state, but under controlled conditions permitting experimental tests of causal hypotheses and theoretical issues.” What is love, anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway? Manipulated independent variables, however — they are forever. The fact that Aron’s procedures had lasting impact beyond the lab setting — one pair of experimental subjects fell in love and got married — didn’t deter Aron from recommending that the method be used in classroom settings. If the emotional lives of study participants are thrown into a lasting epistemological quagmire, then so much the better! Very promising results. I imagine there were people who were already in relationships who participated in Aron’s studies, found themselves weirdly connecting to some random classmate, and then went home wondering if their whole life was a lie.

The method Catron chose for her Modern Love column involved sitting face-to-face with someone and taking turns answering a set of 36 personal questions. These ramp up from “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” to “Share with your conversation partner an embarrassing moment in your life” to “Tell your partner something that you like about them already.” Then, after exchanging this information, you gaze into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Primed by the calibrated, programmatic sharing, Catron felt during the staring contest “not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me” — like a recursive reflection of a mirror in a mirror perhaps. She concludes that “that it’s possible — simple, even — to generate trust and intimacy, the feelings love needs to thrive.” She too ended up in a longer-term relationship with her experiment partner.

When I read this I wondered why there wasn’t an app or a Facebook plug-in that could be set to trigger the irresistible intimacy protocol. I feel like I subsequently saw it framed somewhere as “take the intimacy challenge.” I asked myself the questions but couldn’t imagine not giving joke answers. (Q: “What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?” A: “Drink Sangria in the park, and then later, when it gets dark, we go home.”) Does this mean I am a stranger to myself?

It turns out that there are lots of “relationship apps” that employ similar ideas about programmatic intimacy, as detailed in this Vox article by Rebecca Jennings: “There are now at least a dozen popular apps that cater exclusively to couples: Raft to sync schedules, Kindu for sex stuff, Honeydue for financial planning, Icebreak for conversation starters, You&Me to send messages, Fix a Fight for, well, fights, and Happy Couple, which gamifies getting to know each other.” Such apps schematically advise users about what to say to their partners and when to say it to sustain feelings of intimacy and connection. Oh, and they also may collect user data for monetization schemes to be named later. Jennings cites this GQ article about gamified intimacy,  which offers this:

“Romantic relationships are very personal and private,” says Dr. Christoph Lutz, an associate professor at Nordic Centre for Internet & Society. “Thus, the data produced within such apps is sensitive, potentially even more sensitive than the data produced through dating apps, since we might be more authentic on relationship game apps.” Given how new the bulk of these apps are, they’re likely still in the process of finding their business model and exploring monetization. “Leveraging the data produced, which is a valuable asset given its personal nature,” he says, “is an obvious avenue for the apps.”

I’d question whether this data is more “authentic” than any other, but regardless of that, gamification always yields insights about players’ vulnerabilities; it teaches those running the game how to behavioristically manipulate the players’ reward systems. That information, in turn, can be mapped onto other systems to make them feel more compulsive.

If these apps don’t make intimacy into a game, they make it into work (mimicking the gamification of job performance): Sustaining closeness becomes a concrete, explicit task — a kind of routinizable job rather than the ineffable and spontaneous movements of the soul in love. It’s not that someone special prompts you to make certain intimate overtures, it’s that making intimate overtures makes a person suddenly seem more special. In institutionalizing this pragmatic approach, the couples apps resemble the friendship apps described in this Axios piece that apply the tenets of corporate customer-relationship management to personal life. It seems reasonable enough, given the neoliberalization of everyday life, to treat anyone you meet as a useful business contact from whom favorable outcomes can be extracted with sales techniques. Also, eventually it will seem prudent to combine this with predictive software that can automate the process, so you can keep up friendships without having to participate in them.

The sinister thing about these techniques, as with Aron’s love machine, is that they can seem to work: By making it easy to extract value from friendships, they can devalue the sort of friendship that is not managed, whose value is intermittent and difficult to quantify or resists being laid out on a spreadsheet. Sometimes I feel paralyzed by the thought of unstructured, unmediated interaction with friends. What’s supposed to happen? I want to give them likes, but face-to-face it’s embarrassing. You can’t just attach a thumbs-up emoji to whatever they are talking about and move on. There are times when I think about reaching out to someone who I haven’t talked to in a while but then look at their social media profiles and feel sated. It’s easier to follow, to like and subscribe. The converse, incidentally, doesn’t appear to be true: Having a muted social media presence doesn’t seem to encourage people to reach out to you more. Not that my experience is in any way emblematic, but my mostly dormant Facebook profile doesn’t seem to prompt much curiosity. Maybe if we were all using the CRM apps, I would get some follow-up contacts. Maybe I should socialize on LinkedIn.

As Jennings notes, it’s easy to make fun of relationship management by app, easy to believe that “real love” would transcend such mechanization. Relationship-management apps imply there is a single correct psychologist-approved way to sustain a relationship, a “normal” process that we should use technology to impose on everyone. Hence the claim that couples apps, as Jennings recounts, “could help people with autism, depression, anxiety, or ADHD, those who didn’t grow up knowing what a healthy relationship looks like.” I wouldn’t want to impugn anyone who feels that their life is enriched by these apps, but it also seems as if the apps impose a single way to love, training users in a specific idea of intimacy and disciplining them if they fail to keep up. The apps make an operating principle out of Tolstoy’s adage about all happy families being alike, and imply that unhappiness is a matter of aiming for something too idiosyncratic. That is, the apps target the fantasy of every love being unique. They suggest that no love is special for its difference; rather the idea of “we” can be systematically produced and managed by a third party — an app or a lab assistant. Any combination of experimental subjects can yield similar outcomes.

In Aron’s roundup of the “intimacy literature” he notes that “most definitions of intimacy ‘converge on the central idea that sharing that which is inmost with others.’ ” His methodology doesn’t wrestle too much with what constitutes “inmost” — it simply assumes that people have inner lives and that “intimacy” involves a routinized exchange of that material with another person. But if intimacy can be manufactured in 45 minutes, wouldn’t it be plausible that “an inner life” could be produced by the same system as a by-product? The protocol that conjures an experience of intimacy would at once constitute the sort of personal thoughts and feelings capable of articulating what is “inmost.” What if intimacy precedes inner life? This seems like another potential marketing angle for the CRM apps: They manage your relationship with others in such a way that you can come to discover yourself. After all, you’re nobody until somebody loves you. Why can’t that somebody be you too?